Humble beginnings often yield the best chefs. Derek Dammann, the chef-proprietor of Maison Publique, began as a dishwasher in British Columbia and soon found himself in London, working for one of the most well-known chefs, Jamie Oliver. His upbringing and kitchen experiences have melded together to deliver succulent food that always delights.
Maison Publique is a sharing plates restaurant. You will want to go with friends so you can order as much as possible. Chef Dammann takes pride in using the responsibly-sourced, fresh ingredients and his love for local fare is shown in his menus. There is a menu that changes seasonally and accompanying specials that change weekly. I have yet to be disappointed by a dish after frequenting this restaurant for three years.
My last visit began with my favourite dish that is (luckily for me) always on the menu. Two words – Vitello Tonnato. This dish is life-altering. I actually began making tonnato sauce at home because of it. Tonnato is a classic Italian sauce featuring tuna, olive oil, anchovies, capers, and lots of lemon. This creamy and tangy sauce is served over house-cured pork and garnished with crisp greens and shavings of salty aged-Parmesan cheese. It is such an amazing combination that I could eat this dish everyday for the rest of my life and feel perfectly happy.
The next dish we ordered was fried halibut. This dish brought me back to summers in Maine. The fish was fresh, the batter was light and crunchy and not oily. Most importantly, the tartar sauce was perfect. It had the right amount of pickles and capers so that it complimented the fish, without overpowering the dish.
Another dish I cannot get out of my head is the snow crab tart. Crab is one of my favourite treats from the ocean. It is the ideal mix of sweet and savoury. I could eat crab just by itself, but pure magic happens when you mix it with cream and vegetables and pour that mixture on top of a crumbly tart shell. The top was of the tart was almost caramelized while the inside was still oozing and soft. It was a sublime bite that had freshness, crunch, and creaminess.
I have always been a fan of seafood and just like crab, shrimp have a place in my heart. The shrimp toast at Maison Publique was made use of fresh Québec miniature shrimp, from the Atlantic Ocean. The shrimp were seasoned lightly so their flavour could shine and the sauce drizzled on top resembled a hollandaise. The toasted bread provided a warmth and crunch along with the green onion garnish. The shrimp and sauce were both cold and together were a marriage made in heaven. The briny quality of the shrimp was subdued by the sauce to yield a brilliant mouthful.
When I go to Maison Publique, I always end up ordering more than I needed to, but all the dishes are too good to say no to. Another favourite of the night was the fried mussels with saffron aioli. Before this dish, I had never had fried mussels. I had eaten plenty of mussels in tomato-based or white wine-based sauces, but never fried. I was extremely impressed. In my opinion, these little morsels were far superior in both flavour and texture to fried oysters and clams. The saffron aioli added a nice punch to awaken the dish as well as much needed colour on the plate.
One of my least favourite dishes of the night was the horse carpaccio. I know if you are a reader from the States, you are saying to yourself right now: “I cannot believe she ate horse!” Believe it or not, it is perfectly normal in Canada and especially in Québec. I have had plenty of horse before and actually quite enjoy it. While there was nothing wrong with this dish, the acidity was perfectly balanced and seasonings spot on, it just didn’t excite me compared to the other dishes of the night. I think part of the reason I didn’t enjoy the dish as much as others was because I felt the horse could have been sliced more thinly. This resembled sashimi-style, rather than carpaccio.
A tip when going to Maison Publique, always get the pasta special. Chef Dammann learned to make pasta from some of the best and I am never disappointed by his ingenious creations with something as simple as pasta. This night, we enjoyed wild garlic tagliatelle. The tagliatelle was cooked correct to a perfect al dente and the wild garlic flavours popped in your mouth. The bright green colour of the pasta was quite intriguing too.
The final savoury dish of the night was called asparagus with hollandaise. The dish was the epitome of snack food. There was house-cured ham, white asparagus and boiled potatoes, all of which were enjoyed with an expertly prepared hollandaise. My favourite way to eat this dish was to put some hollandaise on the ham, slice some potato chunks on top of the hollandaise and wrap that dressed up piece of ham around the asparagus. It was a great dish with the fattiness of the ham and hollandaise contrasting with the freshness of the locally grown potatoes and asparagus.
Finally came dessert! Dessert is usually very good at this restaurant. We enjoyed a Bakewell tart, or a traditional British almond cake with fresh cream on top. The tart was firm on the outside and very moist inside. It was a play of textures that was very pleasing to the palate and a light and fitting way to end a big meal.
Maison Publique should definitely be a stop for you and your family next time you come to Montréal. It is not pretentious, but simply offers good food and an even better time.